2011 Camaro Convertible: Finally!

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The first factory-built Camaro convertible in two – no, three – generations is finally here and just in time to catch up with the Mustang convertible and put some distance between itself and the still-not-here-yet Dodge Challenger convertible.

WHAT IT IS

The convertible version of Chevy’s reincarnated muscle car.

Prices begin at $29,275 for the base V-6 convertible; a top-of-the-line SS convertible with 6.2 liter V-8 has a sticker price of $39,775.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The convertible version of the Camaro is a new addition to the lineup.

Also, the standard 3.6 liter V-6 gets notched up to 312 hp from 304 last year.

WHAT’S GOOD

It’s here – finally.

First factory-made Camaro convertible since 1969.

Even the “base” car is tremendously powerful; optional V-8 is supercar powerful.

Gets-you-noticed bodywork; slick looking interior.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Starts out more than $2k higher than a Ford Mustang convertible.

Base V-6 has V-8 power but six-cylinder sound.

You lose 26 hp in the SS if you choose the optional automatic transmission.

Convertible top lets in a fair amount of road noise.

UNDER THE HOOD

As in hardtop Camaros, you’ve got two engine choices with the convertible. Standard in the base and LT trims is a 3.6 liter V-6, bumped up to 312 hp for 2011 from 304 last year. This puts it at the head of the Muscle Car V-6 class, besting the 305 hp 3.7 liter engine in the base Mustang convertible (and also the base Challenger hardtop’s 3.6 liter, 305 hp V-6).

It’s also enough to get the Camaro convertible to 60 in about 6.3 seconds, only slightly less quick than than the V-6 coupe (which is about 220 pounds lighter). That’s very quick performance by current and historical standards. In fact, a 2011 V-6 Camaro convertible is quicker than most of the V-8 powered Camaro coupes – including Z28s – from 1967 (first year) through the early ’90s.

A six-speed manual is standard with the 3.6 liter engine – or choose the optional six-speed automatic, which features a sport/manual mode.

The V-6 Camaro delivers not-bad gas mileage in city driving – and good gas mileage on the highway: Manual-equipped models are rated 17 city, 28 highway; if you choose the more-efficient six-speed automatic, your mileage goes up a notch to 18 city, 29 highway. For a 312 hp muscle car to be capable of almost 30 MPG on the highway is a startling achievement to anyone who remembers the highway mileage numbers of the V-8 muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s.

The SS, of course, is powered by a V-8. A 6.2 liter, 426 hp V-8 that’s the same basic engine that’s standard in the Corvette, but with a slightly lower “official” hp rating (the Corvette’s version of the 6.2 liter engine is listed at 430 hp).

But there’s a catch. You only get the full 426 hp if you stick with the stick. Order the optional six-speed automatic and the 6.2 liter V-8′s output gets clipped by 26 hp, dropping to 400. That’s still a powerful number – and it delivers powerful performance. But not quite as powerful as the manual SS.

Why Chevy does this is a mystery. Automatic Corvettes are not downrated. Why should automatic Camaros be?

Fuel economy’s not the reason, or at least, it shouldn’t be. The less powerful automatic SS gets exactly 1 MPG better mileage on the highway (25 vs. 24) and returns the same 19 city as the stickshift SS convertible.

So, the question lingers… why?

ON THE ROAD

Having owned five older Camaros and Firebirds (same basic car) over the years, the power, performance – and economy – of the new one impresses me greatly. The ’11 V-6 Camaro outpowers and outperforms the two late ’70s-era V-8 Z28s I used to own and gets much better gas mileage, too. Just to give you a sense of how much things have changed – and improved: A 1978 Z28 like the one I owned Back Then had a 350 V-8 that whelped out a weakly 185 hp. The ’11 Camaro’s V-6 is has two fewer cylinders than my old Z’s 5.7 liter V-8 and it makes 127 hp more. My old Z28 also never got better than about 18 MPG – on the highway.

Single digits in town. And it took 8 seconds (stock) to reach 60.

You can imagine what it was like to drive the six-cylinder version of the Camaro back in the ’70s – and the ’80s, too.

Today’s V-6 Camaro truly delivers the goods in every way but one: My ’78 Z28 still sounded better, toothless though it was. As powerful – and as quick – as the ’11 V-6 Camaro is, it hasn’t got that muscle car rumble. It’s not an ugly sound. It’s just not quite the right sound. Maybe some exhaust tuning (different mufflers?) would help.

Or, buy the SS. Problem solved.

This version of the Camaro delivers the entire supermarket. It’s quicker (and much faster) than any V-8 Camaro of the Late Great Days, gets better 40-50 percent mileage than they did and sounds almost as good, too – even with catalytic converters.

The only problem you’ll have with the SS is keeping tread on those 20 inch wheels.

AT THE CURB

The 2011 Camaro was styled to evoke the 1967-1969 Camaro – which it does very effectively – but it is physically a much larger car than its ancestral inspiration. For example, the 2011′s wheelbase stretches to an incredible 112.3 inches vs. 108 inches for the original. That’s very close to the wheelbase of a big sedan like the current Mercedes-Benz E-Class, while the original’s wheelbase is about the same as a current C-Class, a much smaller car.

Just for some perspective.

The new Camaro is also 190 inches from nose to tail – four inches longer overall than the ’69. It’s about an inch and a half wider, too – and weighs about 600 pounds more.

It is also a lot bigger than the current Mustang, which rides on a 107.1 inch wheelbase, is about three inches shorter nose to tail – and about 300 pounds lighter.

I parked my 1976 Trans-Am next to the 2011 Camaro and it looked small – even though it was considered big (and heavy) in its time. The Camaro literally towered over the TA; it was taller, wider and just more massive in every respect.

The athletic engines do a lot to mask the size of the thing, but it’s still huge by Camaro standards – and muscle car standards generally.

Muscle cars are also notorious for having next-to-useless back seats and that’s certainly true here. With just 29.9 inches of legroom and only 35.7 inches of headroom, the Camaro’s back seats are not inviting, unless you’re a bag of groceries. The Ford Mustang has the same issue, though. It pretty much comes with the territory.

The Challenger has a human-usable back seat – and a big car trunk, too – but it’s not offered (yet) in convertible form, so doesn’t really count.

The interior is a strong point, both looks-wise and drivability-wise. Chevy did a lot of work transposing the themes of the ’67-’69 Camaro into the modern version, right down to the “bent” shape of the instrument needles and the fonts on the gauges. If you’re old enough to remember the originals, you’ll notice this stuff and smile. There’s even an accessory gauge cluster on the center console that literally looks as if GM fired up the old tooling and bolted the original car’s parts onto the new one.

Modern equipment abounds – including a Corvette-style Heads Up Display (HUD) that projects info such as your speed and engine RPMs into the driver’s line-of-sight, but if you turn that off and allow your mind to wander, you could easily convince yourself you’re driving a ’69 SS/RS – especially with the top down.

There are some differences, of course. The new car’s roofline is much more aggressively low, for one – which gives the modern Camaro a slinkier look. It also gives it some visibility-to-the-side issues, but these are not terrible. You also ride lower in the seat than you would in an original Camaro; the tops of the doors are higher – and if you’re not tall you may feel a bit small once you’re inside.

But overall, what a treat. It’s as close to being back in high school in late summer ’69 as any of us are ever going to see again.

THE REST

Only three things I didn’t like about the Camaro covertible – and two of them are minor and subjective.

First, the 12V power point on the console has a spring-loaded snap cover that can be a PITAS because you have to hold the lid open while you insert whatever you’re trying to plug in – which makes it a two-hand operation. A flip-up lid (not spring-loaded) would be nicer.

Second, the always-on Daytime Running Lamps (DRLs) that GM still insists on fitting every car it sells with. At least you can turn them off now. Just rotate the headlamp knob all the way to the left and off go the lights. The problem is you have to do it every time you start the car. GM has been pushing DRLs for years, ostensibly for “safety” reasons but at least in part because GM sells a lot of cars in Canada, where DRLs are required by law – and it’s cheaper to build all the cars with DRLs than it is to build some with (for the Canadian market) and some without (for the U.S. market).

Both of these complaints are minor – and concern things that may not bother you at all.

On the other hand, the $2,130 sticker price differential between Camaro and its chief rival, the Ford Mustang, is harder to overlook. You can get into a convertible Mustang for $27,145 vs. the Camaro convertible’s $29,275 base price. This appx. $2k gap continues up the line. A Mustang GT convertible “premium” has a sticker price of $37,845 vs. $39,775 for a 2SS convertible Camaro.

In the past, when the Camaro’s standard and optional engines – and performance – completely outgunned what the Mustang could muster it was easier to justify the Camaro’s noticeably higher MSRP.

But today, with the Mustang recently updated and a very appealing car in its own right, that $2k-plus price difference may cost GM some sales.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Other than being a bit on the big (and pricey) side, the new Camaro’s as likable as the classic models many of us so fondly remember. Being able to relive history is a rare thing; don’t miss this opportunity – because it may be your last one.

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  2 comments for “2011 Camaro Convertible: Finally!

  1. jay
    June 25, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Can’t really get excited about the new Camaro. Huge, clunky, bulky looking. Might not have been so bad if they didn’t attempt to seance the ghost of the 69 which was awesome. Dodge did the same type of screwup with the ‘new’ Challenger. What were they thinking? The ’70 Challenger was one of the sexiest US cars ever, standing still it looked like it was ready to fly. The new one looks like they hooked a compressor to it and inflated it like a balloon.

    The only semi-retro pony car that looks at all ‘right’(even though I’m not really a Ford guy) is the Mustang.

    • June 25, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      Hey Jay,

      I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said.

      I have owned several (mostly second gen.) Camaros and Firebirds. I’ve got friends who own first-gen. cars and one of them stored his ’68 Firebird with me for a long time – so I know these cars personally and very well.

      The new one is massive compared to them.

      I do have a fondness for the old E body Mopars and wish I had been smart enough to buy one back in the ’80s when you still could do that without taking out a home equity line.

      But I feel lucky to at least have my ’76 TA. It may not be as collectible as a ’70 RA III or ’73 SD-455. But it looks and feels virtually the same.

      And even these formerly second-tier muscle cars are getting expensive. I paid $5,400 for mine back in ’91. A similar car today would probably go for close to $20k.

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